May 4, 2022 - World

Pentagon details U.S. training of Ukrainian forces

Ukrainian troops are seen exiting a helicopter while training with U.S. and NATO forces in 2018.

Ukrainian forces rapel from a Russian-made helicopter while training with U.S. and NATO forces in 2018. Photo: Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. military officials overseeing the training of Ukrainian troops say the evolution of their mission since 2015 helps explain "to a significant degree" why Ukraine has had so much success against Russian forces on the battlefield.

Why it matters: The willingness of top Pentagon brass to speak — on the record — about training the Ukrainian military is the latest evidence of the sea change in how the U.S. views and discusses its role in the war.

  • As recently as late March, the Pentagon walked back President Biden's claims the U.S. was "helping train the Ukrainian troops that are in Poland," insisting no physical drills were taking place.
  • The shift to openly training troops in Germany, and publicizing the mission, came soon after Biden's watershed decision last month to begin providing Ukraine with artillery and other heavy weapons Kyiv had long requested.

Driving the news: Brigadier Gen. Joseph Hilbert told reporters on Wednesday the decision to withdraw the 150 U.S. troops at a facility inside Ukraine during the Russian military buildup in February was the "lowest point" of the mission.

  • "But probably one of the high points was the absolute excitement when we knew we were going to put them back to work training Ukrainians" at a U.S. base in Grafenwoehr, Germany, he said.
  • More than 200 Ukrainian troops have since been trained on U.S. howitzer artillery systems now being used in combat operations in the Donbas, a senior U.S. Defense official confirmed.
  • Dozens more have been trained at Grafenwoehr and other undisclosed locations in Europe on the radars, armored vehicles, drones and other sophisticated weaponry included in the latest tranches of U.S. military aid.

The big picture: Beginning in 2015, after Russia's annexation of Crimea, the U.S. invested about $126 million to train more than 23,000 Ukrainians troops at the Yavoriv military base in western Ukraine, Hilbert said.

  • By January, the role of the Americans had evolved from "hands-on training" to advising on Ukrainian-led strategy and preparing for "large-scale combat operations."
  • "Incrementally, over time, all of that investment in their capabilities and their forces — I think you can see just how it's paid off," Hilbert said.

Between the lines: Hilbert and his chief of staff, Lt. Col. Jeremy "Todd" Hopkins, praised their Ukrainian students, branding them as "amazing warriors" who've proved to be "extremely competent" and "absolutely focused."

  • Hopkins shared a story of one Ukrainian finding out during a lunch break that his hometown had been shelled by Russian forces — prompting him and his team to drop their food and immediately return to training.
  • "The biggest mistake that the Russians made was giving us eight years to prepare for this," Hopkins quoted another Ukrainian officer as saying.
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